- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

President Clinton quietly signed into law a retroactive increase in the jackpots that courts will be able to award to relatives of those killed in the crash of TWA Flight 800 and two other airline calamities at sea.
The president's signature on the bill four months ago also dramatized the warm relations based on hefty campaign contributions between trial lawyers and elected officials, particularly Democrats.
Three little-noticed paragraphs on "family assistance," nestled on page 71 of a 137-page budget bill, amended aviation law to make the sky the limit for damages in a flood of lawsuits that followed the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996.
Most of the law does not apply to air crashes that occurred before April 5, when Mr. Clinton signed the legislation. But the unpublicized passage in Section 404 carries an effective date of July 16, 1996 almost four years earlier.
Not coincidentally, that was one day before the aging TWA Boeing 747 flying from New York to Paris exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean eight miles off Long Island, killing all 230 on board.
For the first time in the air age, federal law permits award of actual financial losses plus award of "non-pecuniary damages" such as loss of consortium, pain and suffering, or the death of a child even if he did not support anyone.
The amendment is a boon to trial lawyers because it abolished limitations on lawsuits set by the historic Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) in the case of the Flight 800 crash as well as for losses in future airline crashes within 12 miles of U.S. shores.
Safety investigators announced Tuesday the "inescapable conclusion" that a fuel-tank explosion brought down Flight 800 and formally ruled out a criminal act. Staff of the National Transportation Safety Board dismissed conspiracy theories that a bomb or missile shattered the Boeing 747.
The amendment to aviation law eased DOHSA's most onerous provisions covering airline crashes anywhere at sea after July 16, 1996. The change removed a ban on claims for damages for loss of "care, comfort and companionship" and canceled limits on other nonfinancial damages. At one point, the bill would have capped awards at $750,000 but even that limit was shunted aside in final passage.
The measure also allows trial lawyers to seek heftier judgments from airlines and U.S. manufacturers for families who lost relatives in the crash off Canada of Swissair Flight 111 and in EgyptAir Flight 990's plunge into the Atlantic.
The politically influential Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) lobbied Congress and the president for the amendment. Through generous contributions, the 56,000-member group has grown into a powerhouse in state and federal elections.
In the 15 months prior to Mr. Clinton's signing of the bill, ATLA's political action committee contributed $2.3 million to federal candidates. More than 80 percent of that went to Democrats. Total donations were up 50 percent from the same 15 months in 1997 and 1998.
ATLA President Richard H. Middleton Jr. of Savannah, Ga., brushed off questions about campaign contributions and called the legislation a "humanitarian" expansion of individual rights.
"To say the president is in anybody's pocket is not only an unfortunate characterization of the office of president, but an unfair characterization of the man himself," Mr. Middleton said.
The term "trial lawyers" was co-opted in 1972 by the plaintiff's bar in civil cases. ATLA membership is not open to lawyers who specialize in defending personal-injury claims, because they are the enemy.
The change to aviation law originated as a hometown issue for Rep. Donald L. Sherwood, Pennsylvania Republican. His 10th District includes Montoursville, home to 21 of the Flight 800 passengers 16 members of a high school French club and five adult chaperones.
The measure foundered on the Senate side despite trial lawyers' intensive lobbying until Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, attached it to a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The amendment attracted vocal support from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and then a candidate for president. Mr. McCain is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which handled the bill.
"Family members should know that their children have value in the eyes of the law," Mr. McCain said in arguing for the change.
The White House did not respond to a request by The Washington Times to explain how the president justified a retroactive law that penalizes Boeing, TWA and other parties to the Flight 800 case.
"We have always opposed, and still don't endorse, that idea. Businesses don't like changes in the law that are applied retroactively," Boeing spokesman Jim Neale said.
He said the manufacturer accepted the setback because it approved of most of the legislation.
Boeing is a constituent of Sen. Slade Gorton, Washington Republican, who argued against a retroactive change.
The change does not affect the Warsaw Convention, which limits awards stemming from the crash of any international flight on land or sea. But those limits are set aside if a court decides that serious misconduct by the airline or airplane manufacturer contributed to the accident.
The Senate gave final approval to the air-crash amendment March 15 after three years of lobbying by ATLA and individual trial lawyers.
Paul J. Hedlund of the District of Columbia firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristel, Guilford & Downey told clients in a letter that he helped push through the bill. Mr. Hedlund's efforts included a do-it-yourself lobbying kit; clients had to only fill in blanks on the form letters and call Congress and the White House.
The letter also was signed by Mary F. Schiavo, an aviation lawyer who was inspector general at the Department of Transportation from 1990 to 1996 and is listed "of counsel" to Baum, Hedlund.

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